Can you imagine the Apostle Peter asking Saint Paul, “What is your success rate in Corinth these days?” That question would be about as likely as George Washington asking Thomas Jefferson, “Do you think we should use crypto currency in the United States?”
The questions we ask are products of the time and place we inhabit:
- “Whose son are you?” may be an important question in many parts of the Middle East but not in America;
- “How many cows is your daughter worth?” is of uppermost concern on certain Pacific islands as it pertains to dowry costs (while lots of young ladies in other parts of the world would understandably take great offense to such a question);
- Who asks these days, “How much does a U.S. postage stamp cost?”, when we can send emails, texts, and private message each other;
- How many Americans ask, “Where can I find water?”—yet such was one of the most frequently asked questions throughout the history of civilization.
The question, “What is your success rate?”, is one unique to our historical and geographical situatedness. In the modern era with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (in particular the Second, 1870—1914), emphasis turned upon efficiency and quantification.
Numbers took on a new importance:
- How many bolts can a worker screw in an hour?;
- What percentage of time is wasted between worker shift-transitions?;
- How many human movements are required in affixing a car door to the frame?
This focus on numbers has only been magnified in today’s market. We talk about:
- Customer acquisition cost;
- Retention rate;
- Market penetration;
- Growth projections;
- Stock and dividend earnings.
Measurement. Calculability. Utility. Functionality. Standardization. Predictability.
This is not all bad.
Except when it leaks into ministry in harmful ways.
Don’t get me wrong. We need to keep proper track of income and expenses. Depending on our ministry context, we should keep tabs on things like attendance, website hits, email opens, pounds of food distributed, reading comprehension levels, average age and length of stay, racial composition, etc.
We get into trouble though, when we focus on certain desired results. Ministry is not like business in this way. In the field of addiction-recovery, the typical question is: “What is your success rate?” Truth be told, in my 33 years, I’ve never quite known how to answer that.
- What is success? (We all have different ideas. So who decides?);
- How is success measured? (Self-report? Urine sample? Tithing record?);
- When is testing appropriate? (6 months after graduation? 20 years later? One’s death bed?).
I’ve heard plenty of arguments justifying the importance of metrics:
- You must have something to which you are held accountable;
- Analytics reveal where we are doing well and where we need improvement;
- If you aim at nothing, you can expect nothing in return;
- The only thing business, science, and government understand are statistics. We have to speak their language;
- And the best one: We have an entire book of the Bible called “Numbers” (not to mention two recordings of conversion numbers in “Acts”).
I have capitulated more than once and have asked myself, “Why do I even respond to this question?” I am addressing a matter over which I have absolutely no control. Like Paul said (I paraphrase): “Some plant, some water, others weed, and still others chase away the birds or spray insecticide on the plants,” but God gives the increase.
- How are conversions counted anyway? Someone saying a prayer? Signing a card? Coming forward at an altar? Is salvation really the point anyway?;
- How is psycho-social health measured? (I wonder if David would have passed the test? A quick glance at the psalms shows he struggled with an assortment of negative emotions.);
- How is faith assessed? (Actions? What about the motives behind the deeds? Who can discern that?).
What drives this obsession with keeping score anyway? Why do we feel it necessary to prove his (rather, our) work? Ego? Insecurity? The need for acceptance and approval? Certainty? Money?
We either have confidence in the Spirit’s sovereignty and freedom to bring God’s word in Jesus to people in his own way and in his own timing or not.
You and are not responsible for outcomes! (I know that sounds terribly irresponsible for a leader to say.) “Success”—whatever that is—is not my or your problem. It is out of our control.
Success is God’s problem.
So the question, really, is: “What is God’s success rate?”
It is his mission, after all. He is the active agent. He is the one set about to reclaim his broken world. He is the one determined to right all wrongs and bring life and wellness and shalom to his creation. He is moving, reconciling everything “in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10).
And what he has started, he will bring to completion. Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee.
Confidence in this truth leads to unanxious, noncoercive, joyful witness.
We do not bear ultimate responsibility for the mission. Our part–whether as pastors or parents, counselors or life coaches–is to simply partner with God in what he is already doing. To join with God in being a holy people, sharing a common life, demonstrating in word and deed the lordship of Christ, and trusting in him to fulfill his redemptive purposes. To be faithful—not successful. Much to our peril, Professor George Hunsberger observes, “The American mystique of growthism makes growing the church (or a ministry) larger an end more important than representing the gospel of the reign of God.”
I love this statement by Dr. Sean Love, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Fuller Seminary, “We cannot see a significant portion of our clients’ lives, and we do not see their ultimate destination on their journey toward God. Free will still exists and some will choose to reject the Holy Spirit’s work. But we can accept that there is a larger work of Christ’s Spirit that is happening, now, on earth. And we can welcome that work.”
“Death has been swallowed up in victory. . . Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:54, 58)